Sunday, 20 December 2009

"Holst, Cotswold Man and Mystic" By Marion M. Scott

This has been transcribed from the original typescript of an article written for The Listener May 1944. I have made a few minor edits to the text.
Thanks to Pamela Blevins for permission to use this document.

“I’m a Cotswold man,[1]” Holst once said to me and there was no mistaking the ring of pride in his voice. That settled once and for all any wonderment as to how far he was English. He was not only English but filled with local patriotism, typical of England’s counties. He loved his own one of Gloucestershire. It had more than a small share in shaping him to what he was, for it was during his weekly rounds when he trudged from village to village in the Cotswold Hills training small choirs, that he gained his masterly understanding of human folk and their voices. He could make contacts with any sort of musician from the most elementary amateur to the accomplished professional and could persuade them all to make music. But there was another element in his character alongside the vigorous, out-spoken, open-hearted Cotswold man – it was an element of which he himself was scarcely conscious, but which could be sensed as setting him a little apart from the warm familiar life of earth. It could not be assigned to any known county or country; it had more than a hint of exile from a native-land far-off in time and space; and it produced the same shiver of awe and chill that Flecker’s lines lay upon one in his poem “The Dying Patriot”
“West of these out to seas colder than the Hebrides
I must go
Where the fleet of stars is anchored and the young
Star-captains glow!

Holst and his music being indissoluble it was inevitable that both elements, though apparently incompatible, should appear in his music. They were held there in working partnership by his own mastery, sometimes with one element, sometimes the other gaining the ascendancy and both occasionally uniting – as in this great suite The Planets to produce a perfect synthesis.
The programme selected by the B.B.C. for the performance this year to mark the anniversary of Holst’s death (May 25th 1935) represents the whole range. On the one is the Holst who delighted in the warm life of country sights and sounds, in Folk songs, and the richly characteristic music of such Englishmen as Boyce[2] and Purcell. Conversely there is Holst the withdrawn visionary of Christian and Eastern mysticism, of occult lore, pre-history and thoughts as abstract and ageless as mathematics.

The Country Song for small orchestra, composed in 1906, dates from the time when he was first carrying into London work the impetus of his country experiences. He had been appointed Musical Director at the Passmore Edwards Settlement[3] in 1904, and in 1906 came the Musical Directorship of Morley College[4]. What he achieved at these places was something fresh (or else long-forgotten) in the relation between teacher and taught, and he raised Morley College music to an excellence that has set the standard for all similar colleges. Holst welcomed eagerly everyone who would come along and make music. No matter how inexpert they might be he swept them on by his enthusiasm into efficiency, and he gave concerts with so remarkable a collection of oddments for an orchestra that any other conductor would have collapsed at the gaps. Occasionally he felt some outside help was desirable and he must, I think have applied to the Royal College of Music (where he himself had been a pupil in the 1890’s) for volunteers. I was asked to go and Holst put me to lead the band. It was an experience full of excitement, for he was always tremendously keyed-up with enthusiasm and flung his whole soul into conducting us. So far as I can recollect his beat did not give the impression of either ease or grace, but it was very clear to follow and he got the results he wanted from his players by something which probably was a kind of telepathy.
It did not function so strongly at rehearsals, but on the night of a concert it was sure to be there, for Holst’s mind became incandescent with music. There were the years when he held the belief (which I later heard him formulate) that “the fundamental necessity in all art is emotion; everything must spring from that. The fostering of this latent emotion is nine-tenths of the problem of education”.
Further, he believed that the music we love is that which educates us. So at the Passmore Edwards Settlement and Morley College his students had the best music practicable in the programmes, - Bach, Mozart and plenty of folk-songs. These latter were usually in arrangements made by Holst himself. Through them he got down to something fundamental in the musical make-up of the London workers who formed his choir. I remember in particular the fascination of his arrangement of “On the banks of the Nile”[5] with its strange lilt in the singing of the dotted notes that was not at all a ‘classical’ rendering but slid along with its clipped rhythm in a sort of musical counterpart of our clipping English speech of every day.
Egdon Heath for full orchestra, which Holst composed in 1927 lies more than a world away from his early works. Nothing of his has provoked such violent reactions in listeners as this strange almost frigid piece. For by the time it came to be written Holst’s love of abstract thought had led him to jettison his ideas of the functions of emotion in favour of Stravinsky’s theory that music should be dissociated from emotion. Fritz Hart[6], Professor of Music in the University of Honolulu and a fast friend of Holst’s from their student days relates in his fine study of Holst – “Gustav, perhaps, did not go quite as far as Stravinsky, but he once told me, most earnestly that composers should sternly eschew what he described as the ‘domestic emotions.’”
Though later, as Fritz Hart points out, Holst began to see the brilliant Stravinsky’s weaknesses, the cold poison poured in Holst’s ear produced some chilling works. In one sense Egdon Heath is the supreme expression of this phase. But though orchestras as far apart as those in Paris, Boston and Melbourne have hated it, that does not necessarily mean the work is wrong. It was of all others the one that Holst was surest about himself, and his tone-picture of Egdon Heath considered with an open mind, comes extraordinarily close to Hardy’s description of “a place ...singularly colossal and mysterious in its swarthy monotony.” But even more than to Hardy, I think Holst cast back to the Egdon Heath of pre-history. I once had the fortune to see Egdon (Wareham Heath) under its primaeval aspect. An eclipse of the sun fell that year on a spring morning. Sitting at the edge of the Heath with a friend I watched the birds and insects flitting over the winter-brown bracken and green bog-moss in bright sunlight. Silently the cheerful day dimmed; it grew so still we hardly dared speak; the great expanses of the Heath turned livid, and in the uncanny light of that darkness the world of pre-history welled up from the earth and possessed the landscape, cruel because unaware of feeling, inhuman because without sense of right and wrong. That to me is Holst’s Egdon.

In The Planets Holst found a subject ideally suited to his genius. Composed in 1914-16 he carried it through on a grandly spacious scheme of seven large movements and an exceptionally large orchestra, while his musical and intellectual concepts ranged freely through the solar system, depicting each planet under its astrological signification. In Jupiter the Bringer of Jollity Holst produced a magnificent consummation of Cotswold song and folk-song: and Mercury the Winged Messenger gives a measure of his own swiftness of spirit. These two movements have always found ready acceptance. But the remainder are even more worthy of attention and repay it a hundredfold: the effort is to penetrate their music and meaning.
Down to the least detail they are clairvoyant. Take the first bars of all- the opening of Mars. Though Holst sketched them before the War of 1914-18 the merciless rhythm hammered out by the bass is an almost exact replica of the rhythm made by the guns in France as they were heard daily in Kent during the summer of 1917. Or turn to Uranus the Magician. According to ancient beliefs in the lore of numbers 16 was called the ‘The Falling Tower’ or the ‘Uranus number’. Its unpleasant property was that just when everything is going splendidly and seeming on the point of fulfilment all would be dashed away and the victim left with nothing but his misery. Listen now to the last bars of Uranus where the old magician works up his enchantment into a terrific chord that blazes up FFF through the whole orchestra and then suddenly collapses PP into a moan and nothingness. Surely that is the Uranus number!
It is often said of good music that it is sincere. For Holst the word is too weak. Nothing short of intense truth satisfied him, whether it were metaphysical or material. It was a disturbing quality, making some of his work hard of acceptance, but it will keep it alive.

Marion M Scott May 1944
[1] Holst was born at 4 Clarence Road in Cheltenham Gloucestershire, England on 21st September 1874
[2] William Boyce (1711-1779)
[3] The Passmore Edwards Settlement was an adult education college located in Tavistock Square in London. It was financed by John Passmore Edwards. It is now the Mary Ward Centre.
[4] Morley College is an adult education college founded in South Bank area London in the 1880s.
[5] “On the banks of the Nile” – from Seven Folk Songs H85 No.1 1904 -14?
[6] Fritz Bennicke Hart (11 February 1874 – 9 July 1949) was an English composer, conductor, teacher and unpublished novelist, who spent considerable periods in Australia and Hawaii (Wilkipedia)

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